There’s one orchestra in the news this week – though let’s be honest, as we saw in February, everything the Berlin Philharmonic do is newsworthy. Here’s the article that I wrote for Metro in 2008, when they played at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall as part of the city’s year as European Capital of Culture. I was particularly chuffed to be able to talk to my old Birmingham colleague Jonathan Kelly for this article – not the first great musician to take the journey from Birmingham to Berlin, and not, I rather suspect, the last…
“I don’t want to sound arrogant” says Pamela Rosenberg. “I think we’re considered to be the flagship orchestra in Germany and I know that our city, and chancellor Angela Merkel, see us as ambassadors. But internationally, there are a lot of wonderful orchestras – and we’re in the mix”.
Fair enough. Until, that is, you realise that Rosenberg is General Manager of the Berlin Philharmonic – and suddenly it becomes an understatement on an heroic scale. For classical music fans, the BPO’s Liverpool gig is the unquestioned climax of 2008. Tickets sold out months ago. Because as anyone even remotely interested in classical music knows, the Berlin Philharmonic is arguably the finest orchestra in the world.
And best of all, it’s conducted by a Liverpudlian. There’s not a music-lover on Merseyside who isn’t choked with pride to see Sir Simon Rattle coming home at the head of this legendary band. But to appreciate the true significance of Rattle’s appointment as principal conductor in 2002, you need to understand the BPO’s unique place in German culture. In the first half of the twentieth century, under its visionary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, it established itself as the supreme interpreter of the great German classics, from Bach through to Wagner.
Later, under the autocratic Herbert von Karajan, it developed a rich, silky-smooth sound that set a new international benchmark for orchestral playing. “You may never again hear playing as beautiful as this” one critic is said to have told a younger colleague after a BPO concert “but now you know that it can be done”.
Berlin Phil oboist Jonathan Kelly feels the same way. “I’ve been listening to CDs of this orchestra since I was a boy. For me it’s always been an ideal”. And seated bang in the centre of the orchestra, he’s uniquely placed to experience the Berlin sound.
“The sound is part of the orchestra’s tradition, something it’s very proud of” he explains. “Everyone who joins the orchestra is aware of that, and maybe even adapts their own sound to fit. What’s special about the sound is that it has this almost animal quality that rises up in concert, like a living thing. It’s this wonderful dark sound, but also very strong. This orchestra has incredible reserves of energy. Everyone, from the front to the back, gives absolutely everything in a concert. I love that.”
So what prompted the musicians to embrace a conductor as defiantly un-traditional as Rattle? The BPO’s Liverpool programme – Messiaen’s orgasmic Turangalîla-Symphonie – could hardly be further from the orchestra’s ancestral heartland of Beethoven and Brahms. Rosenberg sees Rattle’s appointment as proof of the musicians’ commitment to the future.
“I think it was a signal that the orchestra wanted to embrace innovation” she suggests. “Rattle’s broad-minded approach to music, and the huge scope of his interests, from early music to the 21st century – this was of great interest to the musicians. Now, there’s a synergy – artistic exploration is fed by tradition, and that exploration refreshes the tradition.” Kelly agrees:
“In some ways he’s found a meeting of two traditions. Older players in the orchestra, especially the ones who played under Karajan, are very positive about him. They like the fact that he’s so human. He’s not a grand maestro type – he just wants to make music with them.”
And no orchestra makes music like the Berlin Phil. At a time when Liverpool’s own rather fine Philharmonic is scaling new heights, the BPO is an inspiring example of how an orchestra can come to embody a modern city. Rosenberg has a message for the European Capital of Culture:
“Classical music is vital for the communal health of a city. It can be a galvanising instrument. Both in Liverpool and in Berlin, orchestras have the potential to make a huge difference. An orchestra contributes to both the social and the spiritual life of a city. Without one, you’re looking at a wasteland”.